Under Pressure Down the Stretch, Angels' Offense Disappears

Johnathan KronckeCorrespondent ISeptember 5, 2009

ANAHEIM, CA - JULY 07:  Bobby Abreu #53 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim slides safely under the tag of second baseman Ian Kinsler #5 of the Texas Rangers for a stolen base in the first inning at Angel Stadium on July 7, 2009 in Anaheim, California. The Rangers defeated the Angels 8-5.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

From June 12 until Sept. 2, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim were the hottest hitting team in baseball.

They lead the American League in team batting average, runs scored, and, not surprisingly, average with runners in scoring position.

Even their home run production has improved dramatically over recent years.

But on. Sept. 4, all of that went away. 

Suddenly, this lineup looked like the Angels of old, a group of free swingers who couldn't take advantage of opportunities if their lives depended on it.

And they do. At least, their playoff lives, anyway.

The Angels are in the midst of a heated divisional battle with the dangerous Texas Rangers, a team with mammoth offensive potential that just needed a little stronger starting pitching to get them over the hump.

Well, they got it, and now they've got the Angels shaking in their halos.

Pressure is a funny thing. Some whither in its face, while others can't thrive without it.

There has been some speculation that the Angels' stunning lack of postseason success last year could be traced back to their stress-free road to yet another divisional title. 

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That somehow, the Angels were so good, they were destined for failure.

Irony personified, as it were.

What they allegedly needed was a little pressure, someone breathing down their necks until the final week of the season.

After all, winning a division by 21 games hardly forges the kind of mental edge needed to cut through those gritty playoff opponents.

This year, the Angels got what some feel they've needed.

After nearly a decade of playing third fiddle to the Angels and Oakland A's, the Rangers have finally become a legitimate threat in the AL West.

They are just three-and-a-half games back of the division-leading Angels, and there is no sign that they are slowing down at all.

Even after losing Josh Hamilton for parts of the season to injury, and now Michael Young for a critical two to three weeks, the Rangers have kept their playoff hopes alive with stellar starting pitching and unflappable offense.

The brutal Texas humidity hasn't wilted their spirits one bit as they continue playing like there's nothing to lose. 

And in some ways, that is true.

Few saw the Rangers as serious playoff contenders at the beginning of the season, and even less expected them to compete within their own division.

From Spring Training until Opening Day, all the pressure to win had been heaped on the Halos, some analysts like Barry Larkin even picking them to win the World Series.

The Rangers have had only their own expectations to live up to.

So what have they done with all of that talent and none of the pressure?

They've muscled their way into not one, but two tight playoff races, making life miserable for the Angels in the West, and the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays in the Wild Card.

Despite playing from behind in both races, the Rangers are still in prime position to make a big run coming down the stretch.

The Angels, meanwhile, have dealt with their pressure by scoring two runs in their last 26 innings.

That's it.

And it is only by the grace of the baseball gods that they played the Kansas City Royals during part of that span, against whom two runs is usually enough to get a win.

Jered Weaver worked a masterful seven innings in Kansas City on Friday night, holding the Royals to just one run and maintaining the Angels' streak of six consecutive quality starts.

Pressure, it seems, has had an equal but opposite effect on the starting rotation.

The bats, on the other hand, have come crashing back to Earth with a tremendous thud.

But it's not as if this squad hasn't faced incredible adversity this season.

The tragic and untimely death of rookie pitcher Nick Adenhart shocked the baseball world and left a gaping hole in the Angels' collective heavy heart.

The team was able to muddle through the next few months, but by June 11, the Angels found themselves five games behind the then-first place Rangers, and were playing listless baseball night after night.

Since that time, however, the Angels have taken the division, and the league, by storm with unmatched offense, superb defense, and will to win that has put them among the league leaders in come-from-behind victories.

Pressure hasn't been an issue all season for this team, and it can't start now. 

Anyone can win in July, but it takes a champion to come through when it counts. So far this season, the Angels have done just that.

Now, if they want to reach the postseason for a third straight year, they must do what they've always done: find strength from within to overcome adversity.

Manager Mike Scioscia and de facto captain/center fielder Torii Hunter have shepherded the Angels through darker days than these. 

It's time to make sure that effort wasn't in vain.

The Rangers aren't going away anytime soon, and the Angels can't sit around hoping they do.

With a lineup jam packed with speed, power, and veteran leadership, and a starting rotation that's finally been solidified with the addition of Scott Kazmir, the Angels have what it takes to persevere.

They've responded to adversity, overcome deficits, and survived the toughest of situations.

The only thing left for the Angels team to battle now, is the pressure.